We need a new national identity

GRAPHIC BY SOPHIE REICHERT/GRAPHICS CENTER

In the years leading up to, during, and after the Trump administration, we have seen a tug-of-war over the American identity. So many on the right insist their version of patriotism includes American exceptionalism, imperialism, and inequality, and so many on the left are too burnt out and burdened by America’s sordid history to contest this. 

When I tell people I used to live in Norway, I am often asked the same question: “Do you want to go back?” I understand why they ask me that. Norway is consistently ranked as one of the “happiest countries in the world.” Norwegians have socialized healthcare, beautiful nature, crystal clear water, and a government that isn’t actively tearing itself apart on live TV every couple of weeks.

America, in contrast, seems like it can’t measure up. It feels like everywhere we look these days, something is falling apart in this country. Our politicians fight each other on Twitter, then approve oil drilling projects that could ruin our nature preserves. When it feels like we’re taking a step in the right direction, with states like Delaware, Vermont, Kansas, and Colorado electing their first openly transgender state legislators in 2020, we take another step back with bills like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay,” which restricts educational freedoms.

But I don’t want to turn my back on this country by fleeing to Norway. There are people I love in this country, places I adore. America has amazing art and architecture, food and culture — we have national parks larger than European countries. We are lucky that when we complain about our government, our words are protected. There is still so much good here.

Part of this fracture in our country comes down to disagreements about our national identity — who is “American” and what do they stand for? How can we reconcile a nation that is so heavily divided, and distrustful of each other?

We need a strong, unified national identity in order to move forward as a nation, and we cannot let those who would rather us turn from a democracy to an autocracy, tell us who we are. Reconsidering the American identity as a multi-cultural, inclusive one that stands for justice and peace, is critical to moving this country forward.

The low level of pride for this country is nonpartisan. According to a Gallup poll, Republicans dropped from 76% “extremely proud” to be American in 2019, to 58% in 2022. Democrats increased their pride by a mere four points from 22% in 2019 to 26% in 2022.

The downward trend of patriotic feelings and losing faith in America isn’t helping us propel this country to a more equal and fair state. If you believe that America is, at its core, rotted, why would you ever defend its democracy? At the same time, we have to be realistic about our nation, know its flaws, and work to change it for the better.

There is an important distinction to be made between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is the idea that we are superior and separate from other nations — that we supposedly know and are better. Nationalism is what drove us to invade Vietnam, Iran, and Afghanistan. It is a hateful ideology that is used by fascist regimes all over the world.

Patriotism unfortunately gets co-opted by nationalist hate-groups. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the “Patriot Movement,” a conglomeration of right-wing hate groups which believed the U.S. government was illegitimate, encouraged its members to carry out acts of terror, like the Oklahoma City Bombing. In modernity, far-right hate groups like the Proud Boys or conspiracy theorists like the Jan. 6 rioters also use a twisted view of patriotism to rally their members. These people have co-opted the term “patriot” to fit their definition of what an American should be: white.

Patriotism should be about feeling proud of your country’s progress, and wanting it to change for the better. When we let hate groups call themselves patriotic, as they attack our government and innocent people, we let them redefine the word.

It can be hard to feel proud of a country that has a horrible history involving imperialism, colonization, slavery, and subjugation of marginalized people — especially when those who perpetuate similar crimes in the modern day, such as officers shooting unarmed civilians, are rarely brought to justice. But as we look back through history, we can see that America has been dragged towards justice by activists and leaders who knew that the ability to change was one of our best assets. These activists progressing America have often been the very people held down by its oppressive and racist laws.

Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” He understood that no matter how long it takes, America will progress as long as we fight for what is right. More than ever, it is important for people in places of privilege, like myself, to listen to and advocate for justice and change for marginalized communities.

History is taught as if America is always in the right and the winner. Right now, there is a fight on whether or not students should learn about the history of racism in this country, and the ways we have failed our marginalized communities. Glossing over the bad parts of American history means we cannot learn from our past mistakes and move forward. Additionally, leaving out this history furthers our divisions. People of color shouldn’t have to educate white Americans about the atrocities their ancestors committed.  

“This is no time for passive patriotism,” Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to Obama, wrote in The Atlantic. “American democracy will not survive if Americans lazily assume that enough people will just come to their senses and recognize that it must be saved.” While youth turnout is increasing, only 51% of eligible voters between the ages of 18-24 cast a ballot in the 2020 election. We cannot idly sit by while the future of our country is decided for us.

There is no easy solution that would radically change Americans’ attitudes towards our country overnight. However, encouraging more civic engagement could help. Becoming an active participant in local and state government, voting in elections, and caring for your community — not turning your back on your country and hoping it heals on its own. Blind optimism for America will not help it progress, and neither will giving up. Democracy depends on active participants; autocracy counts on apathy.

Author

3 thoughts on “We need a new national identity

  1. This article really resonated; thanks for publishing it.

    I wonder if you could expand on the American dream of fleeing to Scandinavia in maybe another article. You touched upon it and clearly could offer a very interesting perspective in depth. It’s a phenomenon that fascinates and confuses me.

  2. You claim that “ Nationalism is what drove us to invade Vietnam, Iran, and Afghanistan. It is a hateful ideology that is used by fascist regimes all over the world.” I would like to complicate this. Why are we taking moments of nationalism as aberrant moments that somehow contradict the logic of the nation-state of the USA. We can very well claim that nationalism drove us to invade multiple countries and it did create justifications, moral righteousness, etc for these invasions. However, these spurts of nationalism are not aberrant trends or moments, but are actually integral to the operation of the nation-state itself. In all of those invasions you have listed, discourses flourished speaking about a potential threat from these countries and how we need to secure the USA. The operation of the nation-state is dependent on the enforcement of a border. We cannot simply say that those Americans over there are the fascist nationalists and we over here are patriotic and somehow progressive. I think if we hold this dichotomy we are simply absolving ourselves of the oppressive nature of the nation-state.

  3. Hello,

    Thank you for writing this article. I love the message and ethos of the piece. One criticism I would offer is (imho) it sort of mischaracterizes the right pole of our political divide and only presents that portion of America through a leftist gaze. I’m assuming the author is coming from a left standpoint? which is fair, but if we are truly to create a robust and inclusive national narrative (which I agree is the most pressing hurtle we are facing right now), we will need to make space for conservative voices in our narrative as well..because it’s like at least a third of the country (speaking of trump supporters). Part of the reason unity isn’t happening is we are unable or unwilling to do this on the left. Let me give an example. I am also a leftist, so I could be wrong, but as far as I can tell from listening to some non-hateful but conservatively based podcasts, etc. (who knows how representative that content is), a lot of people in middle America aren’t fighting for “inequality,” I don’t think even on an unconscious, White fragility, level (although that definitely plays a part), but from my limited observations, one of the main criticisms from that side is how ELITIST the left is and how much conservative areas are being neglected / in decline (which is objectively true). They see the left as people who get lots of college degrees, work in over-saturated and expanding bureaucracies, live in cities, think too highly of ourselves, feel morally superior, think of conservatives as a nuisance, etc (a lot of this is also true, if not a little bombastic), while most people who are turning to trump are needing help, feeling desperate, and are connected to families that come from parts of the country that are in serious decline. Liberal businesses based in urban centers outsourced all of our manufacturing to cheaper labor forces overseas over the last century, virtual abandoning the “blue collar” communities in our own country. Now we’re seeing the results of that self-interested, profit-driven policy. So it’s really complicated. We’ve all contributed, and we’re all responsible for this hate that is emerging (which is growing stronger on both sides). Now, of course it needs to be said that none of this complexity excuses the violent, authoritarian trend that is emerging in the right, but we need to look at our own authoritarian impulse on the left too (political “correctness,” exclusivity, cancel culture, etc.) to find a path toward unity. Because the right can see it, and they comment on it regularly. If we can dismantle our own moral superiority, perhaps we can pave a road for them to also dismantle their feelings of nationalistic-based superiority. For what it’s worth. Overall great article. Thanks for putting it out into the world ☺️.

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